Author (s): Sarah Fecht
Affiliated Organization: Earth Institute, Columbia University
Date of publication: 2017
Type of publication: Research Article
AIDS and malaria epidemics receive much attention from international health organizations, but a sneakier killer is on the loose in Africa. Air pollution may now be the continent’s number one killer, according to a forthcoming study.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the widespread practice of burning crop residues helps to clear stubble from fields and fertilize the soil.
The practice releases fine particles into the air that can harm human health, and sub-Saharan Africa alone produces about a third of the planet’s burning biomass emissions. Bauer and her colleagues set out to learn more about the particles’ origins, chemistry, and health effects.
The Biggest Killer
Particles smaller than 2.5 microns about half as wide as a red blood cell can lodge themselves in human airways. Once inside, they increase a person’s risk of lung cancer, heart attack, lung disease, stroke, heart disease, and more.
In 2015, AIDS was unseated as the leading cause of death in Africa. It was replaced by lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, which claim one million African lives per year.
Sub-Saharan Africa alone produces about a third of the planet’s burning biomass emissions
By these estimates, air pollution from the Sahara is the number one killer in Africa. In addition, studies suggest that some types of air pollution are linked to respiratory infections.
Industrial and urban emissions were the second deadliest source of air pollution. They claim 324,000 lives per year, according to the team’s estimates. Gases emitted by vehicles and factories such as ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides and sulfates as well as soot and organic carbon were mostly to blame. This manmade pollution ranks between meningitis and malaria in Africa’s leading causes of death.
Although burning forests and fields created the largest amount of air pollutants in the study. As a result, biomass burning ranked as the third largest source of air pollution-related deaths. It causes an estimated 70,000 premature deaths per year.
Industrial and urban emissions were the second deadliest source of air pollution
Part of the reason for its obscurity may be that premature deaths from air pollution are hard to pinpoint. You can’t diagnose them like you can for malaria and AIDS. The negative effects of air pollution can manifest in a variety of ways, and exacerbate conditions that can have multiple causes.
Tackling air pollution in Africa will not be easy. Many nations already face political, economic, and social challenges, on top of other known health problems. However, awareness about the dangers of air pollution is growing, and that’s the first step toward fixing the problem.
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